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					Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit patrol a
poppy field near the town of Garmser in Helmand Province of
Afghanistan on May 1.

Marines leaving opium crop alone

By Jason Straziuso - The Associated Press
Posted : Thursday May 8, 2008 10:33:25 EDT

GARMSER, Afghanistan — The Marines of Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon sleep beside a
grove of poppies. Troops in the 2nd Platoon playfully swat at the heavy opium bulbs
while walking through the fields. Afghan laborers scraping the plant’s gooey resin smile
and wave.

Last week, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit moved into southern Helmand province,
the world’s largest opium poppy-growing region, and now find themselves surrounded by
green fields of the illegal plants that produce the main ingredient of heroin.
The Taliban, whose fighters are exchanging daily fire with the Marines in Garmser,
derives up to $100 million a year from the poppy harvest by taxing farmers and charging
safe passage fees — money that will buy weapons for use against U.S., NATO and
Afghan troops.

Yet the Marines are not destroying the plants. In fact, they are reassuring villagers the
poppies won’t be touched. American commanders say the Marines would only alienate
people and drive them to take up arms if they eliminated the impoverished Afghans’ only
source of income.

Many Marines in the field are scratching their heads over the situation.

“It’s kind of weird. We’re coming over here to fight the Taliban. We see this. We know
it’s bad. But at the same time we know it’s the only way locals can make money,” said
1st Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, of Barnstable, Mass.

The Marines’ battalion commander, Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, said in an interview
Tuesday that the poppy crop “will come and go” and that his troops can’t focus on it
when Taliban fighters around Garmser are “terrorizing the people.”

“I think by focusing on the Taliban, the poppies will go away,” said Henderson, a 41-
year-old from Washington, D.C. He said once the militant fighters are forced out, the
Afghan government can move in and offer alternatives.

An expert on Afghanistan’s drug trade, Barnett Rubin, complained that the Marines are
being put in such a situation by a “one-dimensional” military policy that fails to integrate
political and economic considerations into long-range planning.

“All we hear is, not enough troops, send more troops,” said Rubin, a professor at New
York University. “Then you send in troops with no capacity for assistance, no capacity
for development, no capacity for aid, no capacity for governance.”

Most of the 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan operate in the east, where the poppy
problem is not as great. But the 2,400-strong 24th MEU, have taken the field in this
southern growing region during harvest season.

In the poppy fields 100 feet from the 2nd Platoon’s headquarters, three Afghan brothers
scraped opium resin over the weekend. The youngest, 23-year-old Sardar, said his family
would earn little money from the harvest.

“We receive money from the shopkeepers, then they will sell it,” said Sardar, who was
afraid to give his last name. “We don’t have enough money to buy flour for our families.
The smugglers make the money,” added Sardar, who worked alongside his 11-year-old
son just 20 yards from a Marine guard post, its guns pointed across the field.
Afghanistan supplies some 93 percent of the world’s opium used to make heroin, and the
Taliban militants earn up to $100 million from the drug trade, the United Nations
estimates. The export value of this harvest was $4 billion — more than a third of the
country’s combined gross domestic product.

Though they aren’t eradicating poppies, the Marines presence could still have a positive
effect. Henderson said the drug supply lines have been disrupted at a crucial point in the
harvest. And Marine commanders are debating staying in Garmser longer than originally

Second Lt. Mark Greenlief, 24, a Monmouth, Ill., native who commands the 2nd Platoon,
said he originally wanted to make a helicopter landing zone in Sardar’s field. “But as you
can see that would ruin their poppy field, and we didn’t want to ruin their livelihood.”

Sardar “basically said, ‘This is my livelihood, I have to do what I can to protect that,”’
said Greenlief. “I told him we’re not here to eradicate.”

The Taliban told Garmser residents that the Marines were moving in to eradicate, hoping
to encourage the villagers to rise up against the Americans, said 2nd Lt. Brandon Barrett,
25, of Marion, Ind., commander of the 1st Platoon.

In the next field over from Sardar’s, Khan Mohammad, an Afghan born in Helmand
province who lives in Pakistan and came to work the fields, said he makes only $2 a day.
He said the work is dangerous now that Taliban militants are shooting at the U.S.

“We’re stuck in the middle,” he said. “If we go over there those guys will fire at us. If we
come here, we’re in danger, too, but we have to work,” said the 54-year-old Mohammad,
who supports a family of 10.

An even older laborer, his back bent by years of work, came over and told the small
gathering of Afghans, Marines and journalists that the laborers had to get back to work
“or the boss will get mad at us.”

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stover, whose platoon is sleeping beside a poppy crop planted in the
interior courtyard of a mud-walled compound, said the Marines’ mission is to get rid of
the “bad guys,” and “the locals aren’t the bad guys.”

“Poppy fields in Afghanistan are the cornfields of Ohio,” said Stover, 28, of Marion,
Ohio. “When we got here they were asking us if it’s OK to harvest poppy and we said,
‘Yeah, just don’t use an AK-47.”’

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